Remembering days of plentiful game

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It was the dinner menu at our Assisted Living place that prompted me to ask tenant Lorraine about the tourtiere she had ordered. I knew that to French-Canadians like her this meat dish was a staple.

“Did you really put nutmeg or cinnamon in meat pies, like one French teacher once told me?” I asked.

“No, those spices are for cakes and cookies. We used salt and pepper with whatever meat was available – pork, beef, chicken, or even rabbit. Yes, rabbit. They were so plentiful in those long-ago days. Rabbit meat tastes good – just like chicken.”

Photo by Laura Rempel

A dinner tourtiere containing several spices.

I couldn’t agree more. I’ve already described how people like me snared rabbits to supplement income during the1930s and ’40s. But older ones, especially young men, either trapped them or shot them with their .22s. They fared much better than they would have by snaring them, for pelts brought in all of 10 cents or more. (Ice cream cones cost a nickel back then.)

My brothers would skin the rabbits, stretch the pelts on shingles tailored into an elongated shape, and hang them up to dry. Sometimes I’d help by holding the rabbit tight by its legs while they carefully snipped at the tissue binding fur to muscle. Healthy-looking meat was turned over to the kitchen.

Mother used two double-loaf bread pans as a roaster. In one she’d spread some rendered pork fat (lard), multiple onions and garlic, then rabbit pieces lightly coated in flour containing salt and pepper. A drizzle of lard to prevent drying, the second bread pan on top, and voila — the 1930s roaster.

Talk about conserving fuel while cooking. We did it then, but for a far less scientifically critical reason than we do today. Our elongated, cast-iron box stove was stoked with wood all night to keep us warm but it also acted as a slow cooker, with the rabbit casserole simmering on its back as we slept. The aroma when we woke up. We couldn’t wait to savour the morsels.

In the late 1980s as I interviewed the oldest seniors around Meleb (in the Interlake) for a local history book about life in the early 1900s. One 90-year-old woman recalled how plentiful the rabbits were. She’d sometimes find cute little rabbits snuggling up on their doorstep. She’d feel like cuddling them, with their soft fur coating, the way we adults sometimes cuddle man-made toys today, no matter our age.

“But,” she said sadly, “we were hungry, and we had to snare or shoot them to survive.”

I think of her every time I see rabbit tracks in our yard in St. Vital.

Lest my accounts leave readers feeling queasy, for the ultimate seal of approval, look what they do in France. A while ago a Paris friend sent me a two-page recipe she’d used to prepare a compote of rabbit and prunes from a recipe by Paula Wolfert, a culinary historian of French cooking. The result was the most elegant of compotes, but still, in plain language, it was rabbit – rabbit elevated to high-class French cuisine.

The French know rabbit is good to eat, and so did our pioneers.

Anne Yanchyshyn

Anne Yanchyshyn
St. Vital community correspondent

Anne Yanchyshyn is a community correspondent for St. Vital.

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